Not just days, but decades

Last summer, I saw a sizable rift between the Democratic party as I’d envisioned it and as it actually existed. This meant I’d either imagined my own version of the Democratic party forever, or that it had once been–but no longer was–what I’d envisioned.

I dove into reading, and found confirmation as I read. Usually I found little kernels of confirmation in any one book; Winner-Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, on the other hand, provided a wealth of information and details. It also gave me a name for the phenomenon whereby a political body (whether a party or a country) is still perceived as one thing while having become quite another: drift.

“Since around 1980, we have drifted away from that mixed-economy cluster and traveled a considerable distance toward another: the capitalist oligarchies, like Brazil, Mexico and Russia,” write its authors. Later, they define “drift” as “systematic, prolonged failures of government to respond to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy.” In the U.S., drift is a tool intentionally–not accidentally–wielded by politicians to satisfy their owners’ needs.

(The authors don’t describe lobbyists and their funders as politicians’ “owners.” That’s a designation I find more and more fitting with each page I read.)

A concept like drift is central to Sheldon S. Wolin’s 2008 Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Early on, he asks, “how would we go about detecting the signs of totalitarianism? how would we know what we are becoming? how, as a citizenry, would we set about separating what we are from the illusions we may have about who we are?” Envisioning the U.S. as a democracy, we instead live in “a system that legitimates the economic oppression and culturally stunted lives of millions of citizens while, for all practical purposes, excluding them from political power.” Continue reading “Not just days, but decades”


Information and inspiration

Last weekend, I went on a rare date with my husband. Drinking a beer before our show began, I explained that I’ve reached the point where I need two things from each of my political reads: information and inspiration.

Inspiration without information, such as are found in pretty-picture memes, are insipid. They paper over reality and encourage people to see only what it comforts them to see. Such reads neither enhance my understanding of the world as it really is, nor leave me more optimistic about the world my children will inherit. So many people actively choose denial because it feels better now, never mind that the costs (of a barely habitable planet) will be borne by our children and grandchildren.

I’m often reminded of an apt quote by Gavin de Becker: “Denial is a save now, pay later scheme.” He wrote these words about personal safety, but they apply no less to humankind’s future. Continue reading “Information and inspiration”

Outside the pages

“Hey,” someone near me said.

I looked up from my book. A blonde man in his early 30s, walking with a redheaded woman about his age, had stopped to talk to me.

“I just wanted to say … it’s really good to see someone reading a book, you know? Always with our faces in electronics, these days.”

“It feels good to be reading like this,” I replied. “Something about paper and history.”

We smiled at each other before continuing our separate ways.

“Where’s your book?” a security guard asked me on my way back into my office building on Monday.

“I look weird without it, huh?” He nodded vigorously, and I continued. “I try to set books down for short walks. Much as I love my books, there’s a world outside them, too!”

“Aaaah,” he replied, but I was pretty sure he was still suspicious.

(Had I, perhaps, been body-snatched?!)

“Always reading,” chuckled one of my colleagues when I walked into our break room this morning.

I looked up from my e-reader and smiled. “I’ll never be able to get through them all, but I can try!”

“You remind me of my wife,” he said, “before chemo.”

I looked him in the eye and simply listened. He’s never talked to me about his wife before.

He continued, “Since she started chemo, she hasn’t had the focus to read.”

“Has she listened to any audio books?” I asked. “I just discovered those.”

“They put her to sleep!” he said with another chuckle.

I grinned. “I have the same problem. I hear maybe a quarter of any book …”

“I hope my wife can get back to reading soon,” he said while heading toward the exit. I held up luck-crossed fingers as he continued, “and you keep enjoying yours.”

I could almost hear for both of you as he strolled away.

Some say reading is a solitary act. I disagree.

Books connect readers to the internal worlds of writers. Some lucky days, they can even open conversations connecting readers to people outside the pages, too.


Returning By Book

I sought–and found–refuge in books growing up. My physical world was marred by poverty and abuse within my home, and predators who recognized easy prey outside of it. Within the pages of books, I found escape: virtual worlds in which I could be anyone, anything, anywhere. In other words, I found hope.

I haven’t felt very hopeful the last few months. I’ve read the miserable details of miserable (true) stories that could never have unfolded without my government’s blessing. I’ve learned to see that the current comfort of well off Americans around me is an illusion; the sturdier protections of the past are giving way, so that the payments for having allowed their erosion are slowly coming due.

A couple decades ago, I actively immersed myself in hopeful things to create a protective buffer around myself. These hopeful things were different kinds of salves that eased old wounds, if they didn’t heal them completely. This acted-upon determination to lift myself up by–and to–hope helped me escape the grips of poverty and despair.

I spent a couple of weeks so certain that Earth’s utter destruction’s inevitable, I gave up. I wished I’d just not wake up, and would despair each time I did awaken.

But then something small (outside the scope of this post) really pissed me off, and I found a little fire. It reminded me how I escaped despair before: by seeking hope. When I couldn’t find it inside me, I found it within rectangles of pages.

Early yesterday morning, I ordered a few Verso books. One was George Monbiot’s How Did We Get into This Mess? With almost every page I read this morning, I felt my buffer of hope growing. One essay in particular included exactly the kind of thoughts I needed to read:

So what do we do now?

Some people will respond by giving up, or at least withdrawing from political action. Why, they will ask, should we bother, if the inevitable destination is the loss of so much of what we hold dear … it seems to me there are at least three reasons.

The first is to draw out the losses over as long a period as possible, in order to allow our children and grandchildren to experience something of the wonder and delight in the natural world and of the peaceful, unharried lives with which we have been blessed. …

The second is to preserve what we can in the hope that conditions might change. …

The third is that, while we may possess no influence over decisions made elsewhere, there is plenty that can be done within our own borders.

I wanted to keep plowing through Monbiot’s essays this morning, but I set the book down. I need the remaining essays for fuel when my internal reservoirs of hope are depleted.

What he’d written reminded me of something else I’d read recently. I picked up my copy of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark and found the passage I was looking for:

In many cases [many scientists whose fields have something to do with climate are] scared, they’re sad, and they’re clear about the urgency of taking action to limit how disastrous climate change is for our species and for the systems we depend upon. Many people outside the loop think that it’s too late to do anything, which, as premature despair always does, excuses us for doing nothing. Though there are diverse opinions quite a lot of insiders think that what we do now matters tremendous, because the difference between the best and worst case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written.  

Sometimes I can’t find the spark inside myself. In those moments, the answer isn’t to cave in to hopelessness borne of shortsightedness. It’s to seek the flames others have lit, and oh! They’ve lit some soul-warming ones.

As a child, I found hope by reading. Two decades into adulthood, it’s a joy to be Returning By Book … to hope.

90 seconds isn’t enough

When I was a child, reading was my escape from … everything painful about my life, which is to say, everything. I read a book or two daily.

As an adult, I was lucky if I read one book a month. I had a long commute and work to do, even before I had children and a husband. After building a family, I reached the point where I was lucky to read even one book a year. I forgot books were important, and stopped wearing my “Bibliovore” shirt.

Last year, I picked up a book on politics. Since reading an article here and there wasn’t illuminating anything (meaningfully), I sought a longer read to explain what only seemed inexplicable. Glenn Greenwald’s Liberty and Justice for Some answered a bunch of questions, but left me with many more …

… so I read Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Rebecca Solnit, Chalmers Johnson, Neil Postman, and many single books by other authors. Each cast a little bit more light in what had been darkness.

I didn’t see it as darkness, of course; my eyes had long since acclimated to it.

I’ve tried to speak to many friends about all the things I’m learning from books, and the people who studied and interviewed and learned and fought to write them, but to no avail. They have Huffington Post and Facebook to give them their version of news in digestible formats. What good are un-entertaining books? No good, comes the answer, in silences, stony glares, and few words. We get everything we need in tweet-sized bursts. If it can’t fit that, it’s not worth consuming.

A year ago, that seemed just fine to me. Today, though, I see the difference between fragments of “news” and entire frameworks built from intensive study. The difference isn’t minor; it’s like traveling from one side of the United States to the other, in one case, or like traveling from Los Angeles to a planet ten times further away than Mars, in the other.

Try to explain this to people who don’t read books, and they’ll say you’re elitist, never mind that you grew up in poverty and pain. They’ll say many things that reveal how they have no idea what big readers many early Americans were, nor any questions about why things changed from that once-was.

Books are bad. Facebook is good.

In reading books, I found so much history and coherent information I’d never have found otherwise. This is phenomenal, but also depressing as hell. The pace of change today is accelerating to the point that yesterday’s lessons are virtually irrelevant, but people keep on planning for tomorrow as if yesterday is everything. As if tomorrow (and decades of tomorrows afterward) will be just like what we dreamed yesterday was.

This seeing what-was instead of what-is and what-will-soon-be may be the death of humanity.

If, that is, we don’t get back to reading. Reflecting. Looking at and talking with each other.

The words are out there. The books are out there. But they’ll never be found by folks who won’t commit to reading–or conversing–more than 90 seconds at a time.

Modern robber barons: using race strategically


U.S. Republican strategist Lee Atwater spoke the words above in 1981. Later in the same interview, he’d try to separate Ronald Reagan’s presidential win from the tried and true race-based success strategy he described, but other factors spoke their own truth.

In particular, after winning the Republican primary in 1980, Reagan chose to launch his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, near where the KKK had lynched three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan did this after a local official wrote the Republican National Committee “assuring them that the [fair] was an ideal place for winning ‘George Wallace inclined voters.'”

Who was George Wallace, though? What did it mean to be a “George Wallace inclined voter”?

In 1958, NAACP-endorsed, racial moderate Wallace ran for Alabama governor. He lost to KKK-endorsed John Malcolm Patterson, who later attributed Wallace’s loss to the fact he was “soft on the race question at the time.”

Wallace learned quickly. The night of his loss, he proclaimed, “no other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-nigger me again.” Strategically utilizing race and racism in the 1962 governor’s race as promised in 1958, he won the governorship. Unfortunately for the country, this situated him to extend what he’d learned about successful use of coded racial appeals (aka “dog whistles,” heard clearly by one audience while not clearly audible by other audiences) to a national stage. After acting to bar integration of black students into white schools in June 1963, he received more than 100,000 letters from across the United States. Only five of every 100 letters condemned him; the “other 95 percent praised his brave stand in the schoolhouse doorway.” From this, Wallace and politicians nationwide learned that racial resentment wasn’t strictly a southern thing. Covertly evoking race could lead to election successes throughout the nation.

Victory could no longer be gained by overt, explicit shows of racism such as had once been acceptable. It had to be veiled for audiences increasingly discomfited by blatant white supremacist language and action.

Barry Goldwater extended these lessons to the presidential stage in 1964, when “he sold his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a bold stand in favor of ‘states’ rights’ and ‘freedom of association'” (aka “freedom from integration with dark-skinned folks”). Goldwater didn’t win, but Nixon ran with dog whistle law-and-order themes straight to the presidency.

In Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Berkeley law professor Ian Haney Lopez traces the history of dog whistle racism in the U.S. He describes this as strategic racism, or “purposeful efforts to use racial animus as leverage to gain material wealth, political power, or heightened social standing.” Its roots ran deep in the U.S. South, where “the material interests of wealthy whites” inspired creation of a new form of slavery after slavery itself was abolished. Continue reading “Modern robber barons: using race strategically”

Imperial feminism

I began my last piece on PROGRESSIVE ARMY, “On Building Racial Stamina,” explaining how difficult I found it to grasp systemic racism. Once I did begin seeing it, I could hardly believe I’d ever notseen it.

This is especially embarrassing because I took a whole course on it in law school.

loathed both the course and its pompous, BS-spouting instructor.

I’ve seen that instructor’s name a lot in the last year or two, and kick myself every time I do. She wasn’t spouting BS, and she wasn’t pompous. She simply had limited patience for those who, like myself, wouldn’t accept any amount of evidence because it was too threatening to their own comfort.

If I had a chance today, I’d retake Professor Crenshaw’s course in a heartbeat.

I’d actually understand some of it. Continue reading “Imperial feminism”